ROBERT WYATT – Rock Bottom (1974)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Joseph Middleton-Welling

I have to start this review with a confession. I tried to crack this album for years and was never really able to get into it. I forever memorized Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom as an absolutely murky, depressing, tuneless and joyless experience, made even worse by some really pretentious atonal experimental instrumentation and very weird singing. God knows I had tried my best to appreciate this music – for instance, I read up on it, learned the background. You probably all know that story: former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt fell from a third-floor window and was rendered paraplegic by the incident. When he almost gave up on life while staying in hospital, he decided to write and record this album. And I thought the album felt… exactly like something recorded by a man who just gave up on life. It felt hopeless to me. It literally was rock bottom. I could find no pleasure or aesthetic satisfaction found from listening to it. That was what I felt about this record some time ago.
 
But then I was assigned it in the reviewing game. That meant I had to listen to it again (oh God! no! fuck! not again! please!), but it also meant I could try and look at it from a different angle. Which I did. And maybe I could also try to re-evaluate this album and finally find good things in it. Which, can you believe it, I also did.
 
Rock Bottom is indeed a difficult listening experience but everything kind of comes together when you understand that murky, depressing and uneasy is exactly what this album is supposed to sound like. The title and the water-themed album sleeve are not coincidental either – the record does feel like drowning under water with next to no hope of coming to the surface. This IS an album about pain and suffering – and very genuine pain and suffering at that. But I also discovered one more thing when revisiting Rock Bottom: there IS hope amidst all this depressing stuff. And when you finally notice these glimpses (or even flashes) of hope, you also start noticing that this album does have place for some love poetry (some of the songs are dedicated to Wyatt’s wife), some cool jazzy sax solos, some legitimately great musicianship and even some humourous and silly moments (I have learnt to especially enjoy Ivor Cutler’s nonsensical poem recital with a funny exaggerated accent in Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road)! At some point I simply understood that, even if still I don’t really enjoy this record that much, at least it’s nothing like anything else I have ever heard. It’s absolutely unique, and that probably is where its brilliance lies. As for the musical enjoyment part, well… I guess it is a matter of taste.
 
It is also highly possible that all music is purely a matter of taste and our appreciation of it depends on our background, current mood and other insubstantial factors. So try and listen to Rock Bottom. Maybe you’ll love it at once and it’ll become one of your favourite albums. Or maybe you’ll hate it at once, turn it off and forget about it forever. Or maybe you’ll just feel indifferent. But I still urge you to give this record a chance. It might take a lot of patience, but with some effort you can learn to at least respect this music, like I did.
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MUSIC IN BOOKS: MARCUS O’DAIR – Different Every Time: The Authorized Biography of Robert Wyatt (2014, Profile Books Ltd.)

ISBN: 978-1593766160 (paperback)
Review by: Andreas Georgi

I’ve been listening to Robert Wyatt’s work for several years now, and have become a big fan, so the release of his authorized biography is very timely for me. After just having finished it, I can strongly recommend it to anyone with an appreciation for this truly unique artist. For anyone interested in learning more about his work, this book also includes a highly comprehensive listing of all the recordings, videos, and print releases in his 50-plus year career.

From a biographical standpoint, he certainly has not had a boring life, from his bohemian upbringing, to pioneering work in psychedelic & progressive rock, touring the US with Hendrix, to the various collaborations, and of course his life-changing fall in 1973 that left him paraplegic and the challenges he overcame as a result, turning difficulties into opportunities.

The book does a good job in illuminating Wyatt as a highly complex, and often troubled, but ultimately highly likeable personality. Repeatedly he comes across as an extremely intelligent, socially conscious, empathetic and generous spirit. The book does a very good job at detailing how this empathy and generosity influenced his work. It’s a cliché, but in his case it is really true that he beats his own path forward. The book does not shy away from dealing with some of his darker moments of depression and abusive drinking, and how it affected his wife Alfie. Key to his story is the equally strong and creative character of Alfreda “Alfie” Benge, his wife, supporter and collaborator for over 40 years.

Last year, at age 70, Robert Wyatt announced his retirement from music. Fans like me hope of course that he changes his mind, but in any event he has left an amazing body of work. There is an accompanying double CD compilation of the same name. The first CD is a compilation of his releases with Soft Machine, Matching Mole, and his solo albums. The second CD is a collection of collaborative efforts, some quite rare. This collection would seem like a good place to jump into his work. I don’t have the CD, but it looks great. Two thumbs up for the book, however!